Investment in occupational health can pay significant dividends in terms of keeping people healthier at work and ensuring employees are absent less frequently. But its benefits may not be visible to an employer unless it is closely and frequently monitored, the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) has argued in a major new research report.
The report, Occupational Health: The Global Evidence and Value, builds on and takes forward SOM’s 2017 report Occupational Health: the value proposition which aimed to synthesize and articulate the business, legal, moral, and financial case for investing in OH.
It is also part of a wider drive within the profession (including the launch of the Faculty of Occupational Health Nursing later this year) to create a more credible, and compelling, evidence base to show employers and budget holders why investment in this area can stack up in a variety of ways.
The latest report, produced in conjunction with the International SOS Foundation and KU Leuven University in Belgium, takes a more global perspective and has five core messages.
First, the benefits of investing in OH can be directly visible to all “involved stakeholders”, in other words employees, businesses, healthcare payers and society at large. This is primarily through improvements in employee health, reductions in absenteeism, presenteeism and healthcare costs, and in improvements in reputation.
Second, there is a strong moral rationale for investing in OH. As the report has argued: “Apart from not harming workers and the potential health improvements, OH programmes have the potential to reduce unfair inequality and support equal access to healthcare, to diminish the health gap between high-income and low-income countries, and to protect vulnerable groups.”
However, and third, the “value” of occupational health can be influenced by a country’s individual compensation and social security system, including the costs and rigour of its regulatory standards and frameworks.
Fourth, although heavyweight research in this area is limited, “the overall health-related impact and return-on-investment of well-designed OH programmes is positive for a wide variety of interventions in different countries”, the report argued.
Finally, fifth, and as was already happening in the UK, there is scope – and potential value – for employers to widen their workplace health agenda beyond traditional occupational medicine and into areas such as workplace wellness, sustainability and corporate social responsibility.
“Leading industries have already seized this opportunity by taking occupational health beyond minimum national legal requirements, and offering guidance to others to expand the value of occupational health to these dimensions in the future,” the report pointed out.
SOM chief executive Nick Pahl said: “Work-related health issues are far reaching, through the impact on organisations, employees and their families and on the wider community and ultimately the economy.
“Effects are across industries and ailments, from the impacts of a bad flu season to accidents and injuries. Many of these issues are preventable or at least can be reduced, hence the enormous potential of occupational health programmes. This report provides comprehensive evidence of significant positive health-related impact and return on investment of successful occupational health interventions.”
The report includes case studies showing evidence of ROI in practice. For example, in the US, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville managed to reduce needlestick injuries by more than $62,000 a year through relatively simple changes to its sharps collection protocols.
Similarly, in France, a study in the Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital compared the cost of vaccinating hospital personnel (medical and non-medical) with the cost of sick leave among vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees over a number of years, and reached the conclusion that vaccinating employees against illnesses had saved it some €86,458.
A separate report published last year – Global estimates of occupational accidents and work-related illnesses 2017 – has estimated that work-related injuries, including those that are fatal, cost the global economy €2680bn (£2354bn) every year, or roughly the equivalent of the entire GDP of Great Britain.
Additional reporting by Nic Paton